The South Africa Four Day Week results are out, what’s next?

The South Africa Four Day Week results are out, what’s next?
Prof Brendan Burchell

The global interest in investigating the possibility of reducing working hours has, surged exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic. The South African results from the initial four-day work week (4DW) trial released this week, align with international studies, showcasing compelling benefits.

Recent 4DW trials in the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom have vividly illustrated the advantages for both employees and employers through reduced working hours. This week, the outcomes from South Africa’s participants reinforce the viability of such an approach, mirroring the successes witnessed in other trials.

The 100-80-100™ model (ensuring 100% pay, 80% hours, and 100% productivity), pioneered in New Zealand six years ago, has proven effective in South Africa. It has yielded multiple benefits, fostering employee well-being, enhancing work-life balance, and empowering employers to boost productivity and attract the best talent.

Findings from research teams at Stellenbosch Business School and Boston College now contribute to the growing body of evidence from other countries, marking the first proof that this model operates successfully within an emerging economy. A pivotal aspect of this mutually beneficial transformation involves consultants imparting knowledge on redesigning workplaces for more efficient work within shorter timeframes. These trials demonstrate its applicability across a variety of workplaces.

Drawing from the UK’s experience, which ran a similar trial in 2022, the ripple effects can be seen far beyond the trial itself. The 4DW became a topic of conversation, across newspapers, social media and among policymakers.  Many of the 60 firms involved in the UK trial reported that other firms they interacted with were now emulating their reductions in working time.

Experiments are now underway which extends beyond the private sector.  In the UK one local authority, South Cambridgeshire, concluded its independent three-month trial, and the results were again hugely positive in terms of the quality of the service provided and the wellbeing of employees, leading to its renewal for a 12-month period.  The council’s enhanced appeal as an employer facilitated recruitment for previously challenging vacancies, saving substantial amounts previously spent on agency fees.

Recently the Scottish government has announced their plans for a 4DW trial within some government departments, set to start in early 2024.  Trade Unions are waking up to the potential of working time reduction to improve the working lives of their members. The US United Auto Workers have incorporated the 4DW as one of their claims in their current strike action against Detroit car factories.

Some governments, notably Belgium, are exploring ways to incentivise working time reductions through tax breaks for employers.  Several US states, including Maine, have started to implement four-day weeks and other working time reductions for state employees.  Even companies not yet ready for the 20% reduction in working time are cottoning on to the fact that even modest working time reductions can be a better way to attract, motivate and retain the best staff, while being less costly than hiking salaries.

As the international evidence builds, we are gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the advantages of the 4DW. There had been some understandable initial scepticism regarding whether the beneficial effects might wear off after the first six months as the new way of working went past it’s “honeymoon” period and became a new norm.

However, follow-up studies in the US and Canada, and ongoing assessments of UK firms that first reduced their working time over a year ago are showing that the positive results show little sign of diminishing with time.

As the global dataset of companies that have adopted the four-day week grows to several hundred (now including the South African case studies) there is increasing evidence that the “100-80-100” model does not only work in professional services but successfully implemented in manufacturing, retail, schools, and other sectors.  It could be that the 4DWW is like the genie that cannot be put back in the bottle – once people realise that a 50% increase in their weekends is a real possibility and understanding its viability, the old work norms become untenable.

Brendan Burchell is a Professor at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and led the Cambridge Team’s contribution to the UK’s Four Day Work Week trial. He is currently a visitor to the Stellenbosch Business School. For the South African results released  visit https://www.4dayweek.com/sa-2023-pilot-results